Fantasy Baseball: Just Draft Freddie Freeman and Don't Worry About It
We've all seen it before, and despite our short memories, we are all wary of what lies ahead. A player has a monster season, shoots up draft boards the following year and then lays a stink bomb.
Struggling to remember some of these folks? Let me jog your memory.
"The Bird" Mark Fidrych for the Detroit Tigers in 1976 -- he finished second in the Cy Young voting as a rookie, and only made 27 more starts for his career. Brady Anderson of Baltimore Orioles fame -- he launched 50 bombs and drove in 110 runs in 1996, and he hit 18 homers the following season. And how can we forget Luis Gonzalez's insane 2001 season? That year he smashed 57 bombs and posted a .688 slugging percentage, but he never hit more than 31 jacks in any other year of his career.
There are many other examples of players like this, albeit perhaps less extreme.
Is his 2016 output sustainable, or was it a one-year blip? And how will the Braves' move to a new stadium impact their slugging first baseman?
Let's take a closer look.
Mashing His Way Through 2016
Coming off an injury-plagued 2015 season, one in which he was limited to 481 plate appearances thanks to a bad wrist, fantasy owners were cautiously skeptical on Freeman entering the 2016 season. It was justified, as Freeman had just set career lows in homers, runs, RBI and batting average.
After a slow start to the 2016 campaign, hitting only three jacks in March and April, Freeman started absolutely ripping the cover off the ball.
After a career-worst season, Freeman bounced back with a career-best year. He posted career highs in home runs, runs, walk rate, isolated power (ISO), on-base percentage (OBP) and wRC+. He was a man on fire.
Freeman hit five or more home runs in every month after April, including 16 combined in August and September. While those last two months were really healthy, Freeman was possessed nearly all year long.
Freeman did have a .370 BABIP, but his big year wasn't carried by luck. He posted BABIPs of .371 and .351, respectively, in 2013 and 2014, and ended 2016 with a career-best 43.5% hard-hit rate -- easily surpassing his old career high (39.8%).
There's No Place Like the Road
Last year marked the final season of Turner Field, and count Freeman among those who will be happy for the change in scenery, assuming the new park isn't even more pitcher-friendly.
The Braves' old home was always a bit of a pitcher's haven, and certainly, the data would suggest the same for 2016. Looking at Baseball Prospectus park factors by handedness, Atlanta's field significantly depressed power from both sides of the plate (note: a home-run factor of 100 would be neutral, with clips over 100 favoring hitters).
This is an even bigger deal for a hitter like Freeman. His spray chart reveals a batter who hits the ball over the yard. While the majority of Freeman's home runs were either pulled or hit to center field, he did notch 12 home runs to left or left-center in 2016.
Given all that, it should be no surprise that Freeman performed far better on the road in 2016 -- and it's not by a small margin.
When he was on the road, Freeman's average jumped by 43 percentage points, and his ISO saw a staggering rise of 100 percentage points. Freeman may have footed the U-Haul bill himself for the move to the new park.
Welcome to Your New Digs
When any team makes a change in scenery to a new home stadium, it's difficult to predict exactly how that change will impact hitters and pitchers.
One thing that is for certain, though, is that the fences are moving in at the power alley in right-center and down the right-field line. Perhaps the biggest difference is in right-center -- at Turner Field, lefties needed to sock the ball 390 feet to get it to the wall, but it will only be 375 feet at the new park. Down the right-field line is shorter, too, by five feet -- but they will have to contend with an elevated 16-foot wall at SunTrust Park.
How exactly will this impact Freddie? Andrew Perpetua over at RotoGraphs did a great piece taking Freeman's batted-ball data from the last three seasons at Turner Field and overlaying that to SunTrust Park. Take a peek.
The pink bubbles represent batted balls that would have left SunTrust Park. Freeman hit a bunch of balls to right and right center in 2016 that were either outs or extra-base hits at Turner Field, but those same balls might be homers in 2017.
It's important to keep in mind that there's a large wall in right-field, so these all won't definitely be homers. However, nearly 20 balls would be aided by the new park -- an average of roughly 6 balls per season. That's a nice boost simply from changing to a new field.
It's Time to Buy In
History has shown that players with such a dramatic increase in production from one year to the next aren't a lock to replicate that success. In fact, we've seen several times where the big season has ended up being a one-year aberration.
But there's multiple reasons to believe that Freeman's 2016 was not only real, but he also could be in line for an even bigger 2017 thanks to a move out of a pitcher-friendly park and into one that potentially elevates lefty power. Entering his age-28 season, this looks like the case of a player naturally improving in his prime.
Using early NFBC ADP draft data, Freeman is only the sixth first baseman off the board and the 26th overall player (somewhere in the third round of a 12-team league), closely bunched up with Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion. In 2016, Freeman finished fourth among first basemen in our player rater, and combined with some additional production, he has a good chance to be among the top-five first baseman again in 2017.